If breastmilk is so good for babies, why do so many mothers find it tough going? Nikki MacFarlane of HealthAnswers explains how you can be prepared.
Why Breast Milk?
Many women hope to breastfeed their babies once they are born. This stems from an understanding that breastmilk is the natural and complete food for the baby and a sense that breastfeeding can help foster the closest bond between a mother and her newborn. Research has clearly demonstrated that there are enormous benefits of breastfeeding to both babies and their mothers.
- Breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis in mothers.
- Babies who are exclusively fed or supplemented with artificial milks have twice the rate of minor neurological dysfunction when compared to children who are exclusively breastfed for at least for the first three weeks of life.
- Increased duration of breastfeeding is associated with statistically significant increases in IQ .
- Breastfeeding reduces the risk of a child developing insulin dependent diabetes mellitus.
- Children not breastfed face a 14 times greater risk of death due to diarrhoeal disease compared to those who are breastfed. The World Health Organization and UNICEF estimate that approximately 1.5 million babies die each year because they are not breastfed.
- Breastmilk provides our children with protection against a host of illnesses including gastrointestinal and acute respiratory disease, otitis media and urinary tract infections.
- Formula fed babies are seven times more likely to have allergy problems than breastfed babies.
- The jaw action of breastfeeding helps a baby's jaw and face develop correctly, reducing the risk of orthodontic problems in childhood.
Fear And Pain
So why is it, with all this knowledge, so few women in Australia persist with breastfeeding beyond the first six weeks postpartum and many do not even start. For some, it is the knowledge that they are returning to work soon after the birth and do not feel they are able to express breastmilk for their babies to have while they are gone. However, for many women it is the problems they encounter while breastfeeding that prevents them from feeding exclusively for a longer period of time.
Most new mothers have heard horror stories of mastitis, engorgement, abscesses and cracked, bleeding nipples. Very rarely do they hear of how to solve these problems, or where to find support if they encounter them. But some women do continue to breastfeed successfully, despite these problems. What keeps them going is their strong belief that they are giving their baby the best possible start in life and often have full support from friends, family and healthcare professionals.
A common problem when breastfeeding is sore nipples.
In my work supporting new mothers with breastfeeding problems I find that many believe this is normal and something they have to persevere with. This is simply not the case. Sore, cracked or bleeding nipples is very often caused by positioning or latching problems and if caught early, can be straightforward to correct.
When women are being helped to breastfeed their babies for the first time, they may not be shown how to do it correctly. If they learn to latch the babies on in an incorrect position, sore nipples will be almost inevitable. When a new mother is experiencing pain in her nipples as well as exhaustion from caring for a new baby and physically recovering from giving birth this can be too much to cope with and reaching for the bottle is very tempting.
Support For Breastfeeding
Women who continue to breastfeed despite problems usually have one or more of the following factors:
- They have successfully breastfed a baby before
- They have a supportive family who believe in the benefits of breastfeeding
- Their paediatrician or family doctor is encouraging of breastfeeding
- They have access to a lactation consultant
- They are very aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding
It is unlikely, if a women doesn't have at least one of these factors in place, that she will continue breastfeeding if she experiences problems. Perhaps the most significant factor is family support. This can make an immense difference in the new mother's self-esteem, her belief in the ability of her body to nurture her baby and her confidence as a new mother. Perhaps breastfeeding education should take place with the partners and grandparents present so all can hear and understand the importance of breastfeeding.
There is far more information available regarding breastfeeding problems and benefits now for those who have access to books and the Internet. Many web sites have healthcare workers and lactation consultants available to answer questions. Mothers can read about problems and ways to solve them. Hospitals provide lactation consultants to support new mothers in the first few days after birth.
However, once a mother returns home, she may feel overwhelmed by the persistence from friends and family to give the baby a bottle. Many reasons may given from "you need to have a rest" to "your milk is too thin". The expectation from many is that breastfed babies should be fed to a routine and frequent feeding may be seen as an indication that the mother is not producing enough milk.
Few mothers hear the advice that the most effective way to increase milk supply is to feed more frequently. Certainly giving a baby supplemental feedings of artificial milk is going to have the opposite effect.
Women know that breastfeeding is better for their baby's health. Many also know that it is better for their health. Women understand that nurturing your child at your breast can be an emotionally rewarding experience. Husbands and other family members who are supportive of breastfeeding know that there is much they can do in bonding with the new baby and fostering a fulfilling relationship without having to feed the baby including bathing, massage and play.
For women who do experience problems there is help and support available whether that be in the form of lactation consultants, health professionals, books or web sites. For the sake of our babies, we should all be well informed about the benefits of breastfeeding and the risks of artificial milk. Our children deserve the best.
Date reviewed: 15 January 2005